Dance company puts sexuality on the ‘Edge’

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“I feel very fortunate in that dance chose me and it was a calling,” said Edgeworks Dance Theater founder Helanius J. Wilkins.

It seems as though dance has chosen well.

The openly gay dancer and choreographer is using his calling and dance theater to challenge stereotypes about identity, sexuality and masculinity from an African-American perspective.

A Louisiana native, Wilkins was inspired to take up dance at an early age after witnessing a performance by a dance legend.

“Part of my history is a fairy-tale story where I saw a PBS special on Alvin Ailey and Mr. Ailey introduced himself as a choreographer,” he said. “That immediately resonated with me at a very young age. I feel that was my journey all along. When I reached my late high-school years and college, that was when I really threw myself into the art more.”

Wilkins relocated to Washington, D.C., 13 years ago and, in 2001, started Edgeworks, an all-male dance company comprised predominately of African-American men using their performances to reflect the diversity of experiences and perspectives of its members.

“I wanted to show dance as a vehicle to express myself,” Wilkins said. “Dance has long been a field that has been stereotyped as being for women. I wanted to show the physicality that is required for dance, and to make great art.”

Wilkins said that while Edgeworks is a contemporary dance company, the inspiration for its collective style extends far beyond the realm of dance.

“I would say [Edgework’s style incorporates] hip-hop forms, club dancing and athletics,” he said. “I’m fascinated with speed and defying gravity. That has a lot to do with my years of playing basketball and running track as well as learning martial arts. I think it’s a fusion of everything I’ve been able to experience. It’s become part of my personal expression. I’m a fan of a wide range of things: I have very eclectic taste. I definitely look at the work that I’m doing on hand. I’m trying to put everything possible in it.”

Edgeworks is performing a multimedia piece titled “The Determining Factor” at 8 tonight and tomorrow at Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St.

The performance will examine stereotypes and how the issue of sexual orientation is dealt with and experienced in America.

“Part of it is looking at the black male experience and the black community,” Wilkins said. “In many ways, we still govern our choices and attitudes about sexuality in a way that is standoffish and taboo. So it’s in part questioning why and bringing to the forefront the conversation.”

Wilkins said the subject matter is especially timely given the recent election, where racial equality seemed to take a leap forward and LGBT equality took a leap back.

“It dawned on me that this journey, being able to do this project, is definitely a reflection of what’s going on politically at the time, and socially for that matter,” he said. “It’s a move toward being more open about having a conversation. The work I do is politically and socially driven. I think the work allows for a greater opportunity to bridge gaps between communities. I believe in the work there’s something for everyone. I always approach my work from a place of creating material that allows us to question, to think and to reflect. Those are all characteristics we all share collectively, regardless of your background.”

Edgeworks Dance Theater performs Nov. 21-22 at Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St. For more information, visit www.hjwedgeworks.org or call (215)925-9914.

Larry Nichols can be reached at [email protected].